An inspired forward-looking move that anticipates the future of TV viewing, or a costly public relations mistake that will see audience numbers dwindle? Whatever the reality turns out to be, the decision to switch BBC Three from linear to online has certainly split opinion.

In mid-February BBC Three made history by being the first linear TV channel to move exclusively online, with video content made available through the BBC iPlayer, the BBC website, and YouTube. Some see it as a positive step along the path to TV and digital convergence, while others predict it will cost the BBC more than half a million of its younger viewers.

So why did the BBC make the decision to cease broadcasting BBC Three in the traditional sense and what does this mean for the future of TV?

BBC Three’s target audience is 16-24 year olds – with programmes such as American Dad and Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents.  The BBC’s decision to make it an online-only channel is in part a recognition that young people are watching less linear TV and more online video. Last year Ofcom reported younger audiences were far more likely to time-shift TV viewing via DVRs or catch-up services than older generations.  This trend is unlikely to be a passing phase as further research shows younger audiences continue to favour online video over linear TV once they grow older and move into their own homes.

As well as the most obvious benefit of saving the BBC money – a reported £30 million – switching to online-only viewing frees BBC Three from the restraints of a TV schedule and gives the channel more flexibility over the length and type of content it produces. The new service will include short films, blogs, and news and sports updates, alongside more traditional formats.

While new programmes on BBC Three will only be made available one episode at a time, previously broadcast series will be available to watch in their entirety. This should allow BBC Three to compete more effectively with services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, known for box-set style content. These popular video-on-demand services are growing rapidly, with Thinkbox figures showing subscriptions almost doubled last year, although they still only account for around 4% of total video viewed.

Does BBC Three’s decision spell the end for linear TV?

BBC Three’s shift to an online-only channel is part of a wider change in the way people watch television. Viewers are no longer restricted to TV schedules – they can watch video content at any time and in any place through the use of smartphones, tablets, and connected TVs. Online video is no longer simply complementary to linear television – providing the chance to see additional content or catch-up on missed programmes – it has become part of the TV viewing experience in its own right.

The UK is particularly advanced in non-linear TV viewing, with 81% of adults using an online service to watch TV or films, and 70% using free-to-air services such as the BBC iPlayer. Traditional TV viewing is slowly declining, but still remains by far the most popular method of TV consumption with adults watching an average of 3 hours 40 minutes of linear TV per day.

The coming months and years will undoubtedly see the emergence of further delivery mechanisms for video content, and BBC Three is unlikely to be the only channel making the switch to online, but this does not spell the end for traditional TV. As TV and digital continue to converge, linear television will evolve to become just one of the many options modern viewers have for watching video content.

Find out more about the current state of TV and video convergence and what it means for businesses via this Mediaocean video.